Crisis: The N.I.H. Director is a Christian!

The director of the National Institute of Health (NIH) is appointed by the president and then confirmed by the Senate. The position is of substantial importance within the scientific community because the director is ultimately in charge of the dollars that the United States government dedicates to biomedical research. The NIH employs 20,000 scientists and funds 375,000 outside research projects. A little over a year ago, President Obama had the responsibility to name a new director. Would you hire a scientist whose resume included the following:

1. Universally acknowledged as one of the world’s top scientists.

2. As a young researcher at Yale he was responsible for developing strategies that significantly sped up the process of finding disease-causing genes.

3. As an assistant professor at the University of Michigan he was major player on a team that used the strategies he developed to discover the gene that causes cystic fibrosis and then a year later the genetic flaw responsible for neurofibromatosis.

4. He served as the director of the Human Genome Project bringing it to a successful conclusion 2 years early and $400 million under budget.

5. He has great relationships with the congressional leaders who are responsible for setting the N.I.H. budget.

That sounds like a pretty solid candidate for the job at NIH. The man who owns this resume is named Francis Collins and in the summer of 2009 President Obama named him to this post, sometimes referred to as “the nation’s top scientist.” The Senate quickly confirmed the appointment. No scientist questioned his professional qualifications.

But there was one problem that caused some scientists to lash out against Dr. Collins. What could possibly be wrong with him? Francis Collins is a evangelical Christian.

This led to a story in the New York Times that said that some of his colleagues in the scientific community believed Dr. Collins suffered from dementia. “Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard, questioned the appointment on the ground that Collins was ‘an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs.’ P.Z. Meyers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota at Morris, complained, ‘I don’t want American science to be represented by a clown.'”

None of these criticisms was in reference to his credentials but only to his belief in historic, orthodox Christianity. I guess that I find it somewhat hard to believe that it would be acceptable to assail a top-flight scientist on the grounds that he was a devout Muslim or Jew. But for some reason it is okay to call Dr. Collins a clown on the basis that he’s a Christian.

If you’d like to learn more about Francis Collins, including his interesting upbringing and his role in the recent controversy regarding stem cell research, I would direct your attention to an article by Peter Boyer in the September 6th New Yorker. Mr. Boyer gives him a fair hearing and resists falling into the trap of saying, “He’s a Christian but he’s still smart.”

You might also be interested in reading The Language of God by Francis Collins. While you may not agree with him on every point, I do think that you will find it encouraging that one of science’s brightest minds also believes in Jesus.

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